One day post-marathon, I sit here antsy and unfocused, itching to run, but knowing I need rest… So I’ll write, while watching the sunset.
Running this past training cycle has been different for me. Not just physically — which is definitely true as I’ve incorporated track workouts into marathon training for the first time and my weekly mileage has been higher than it has ever been — but mentally, too.
Internally, a lot of the past four years has been mental and emotional turmoil, and running has been my primary outlet to make sense of it all. When I started running regularly, a majority of my runs involved tears, at some point. They either started in tears — with my frustration boiling over and running as a last ditch attempt to throw away the negative energy. Or, tears would come midway, as I sorted through the day’s anxieties. And I used those runs to soothe myself, work the energy out.
Recently, though, running has been less emotionally charged with in-the-moment frets, angers, and anxieties. Rather, it has been both more reflective and forward-looking — of what has gotten me to where and who I am, how that is different than it has been or what I thought it would be, and what I want that to be in the future.
On a 16 mile run in the Illinois humidity in mid-July, around mile 12 or 13, I had a thought that stayed with me through the rest of my training into August and September — and that became a bit of a mantra as I fidgeted through three weeks of tapering and, ultimately, fought through the marathon.
long distance running,
it hurts the worst
you get through it,
you get to feel it,
you take time
This was true of that particular long run itself. In a sixteen mile run, it might start to hurt three-quarters of the way through — but that is right at the point when you can also see the end is near: a mere 3 miles to go, fewer than I usually run in a single outing. As long as I remember that second part — the “light at the end of the tunnel” part — I can allow myself to feel the pain without stopping. And then of course, when the run is done, I rest.
That pain and frustration I was sorting through at the beginning of my running habit also provides me a source of grit to fight through the physical (and mental) pain of getting through a long run. This is a big part of the reason I have come to appreciate long distance running so much. I think Nikki Kimball expressed this feeling beautifully in the documentary about her attempt to break the record for completing Vermont’s Long Trail, Finding Traction:
“I think that depression is my secret weapon. When things get really, really bad in an expedition or in an ultra-race, I can look back to the pain I was in at the worst of my depression, and the pain I’m in in an ultra-race isn’t that bad…. I couldn’t have fought depression without activity. Just half a mile of walking during the worst of my depression, even though I’d be crying through part of it, I think it really helped keep me alive. One of the things about depression… it’s not just that you feel sad. You feel nothing. And I think one of the reasons that I do ultras is because it gives me the highest highs and low lows, but I can handle, acute, strong lows. That, juxtaposed to feeling nothing, that’s just fantastic.”
As I worked toward the end of the training cycle, I started to see how that thought applied to not just any particular long run, but the process of training for a race as a whole.
Take an 18 week marathon training cycle. The training gets progressively more intense in chunks of two weeks, up until the highest mileage total in week 15. Now, the longest long run (usually 20 miles) at the end of a high mileage week can hurt, but, in my opinion, that’s not the “hurts the worst” moment of the training cycle (though you’re getting close). For me, the “hurts the worst” moment comes in the three weeks following the peak mileage week, when I’m dialing back the mileage to rest my body for the race, and I get all that extra time for the mental noise to kick in.
For me, that mental noise is the voice telling me that I messed up my training and it won’t make a difference on race day. Or that the muscle twinge I feel in my right calf (or wherever) is going to become a crippling injury in the middle of the race so that I won’t finish. Or that I’ve been running so infrequently that I’ve lost all my fitness and capacity.
More specifically, in this training cycle, as I felt myself getting sick on Sunday night, exactly one week before the race, it was the voice telling me that, regardless of how much work I put in, I wasn’t going to be able to run on race day, and that I would be a failure, and that it was just evidence that it is never worth it to put work into anything, because ultimately you have no control over the outcome. The voice telling me that it was naïve and foolish to care about anything at all, because it never works out the way you imagine. My mental noise is dark, and it’s mean, and it hurts.
This is the “hurts the worst” moment. And I throw a lot of mental (and actual) tantrums. Rationally, I know that this is mostly nonsense and definitely unproductive. And to get through it, I have to keep looking forward — to race day. I have to remind myself to trust my training and to trust myself. I argue to myself that even if my being sick means that I do not run as fast or as strong as I would have if I were not sick, I will still be faster and stronger than I would have been had I not trained so hard and gotten sick. (Yes, I spend a lot of time making up counterfactuals for myself.)
And then, marathon day, you get to feel it – the rush of nerves and excitement leading to the start of the race, and the race itself.
This past Sunday it was the Chicago Marathon.
I feel the nerves setting up the night before and waiting at the start line.
I feel the laser focus of running to meet a time goal of 3:45:00, which I held onto so tightly until mile 19, when the heat descended, and I felt my body ask me to adjust to something a little less ambitious, but still an improvement.
I feel the tightness come into my right hip flexor that I injured when I was 15 around mile 14, which pulls ever so slightly on my knee, signaling that I should stop to stretch.
I feel the support of the crowd, especially in miles 3, 13, 17, 21, and 24, where I got to see family and friends and in the intermittent camaraderie of a “Go Green!” with fellow Spartans.
I feel the exasperation around mile 20 that I *still* have nearly an hour more to run.
I feel the determination in mile 23, as the 3:40:00 pace group comes up behind me that “I’m going to keep with them the rest of the way.” (to be clear – they started after me, so this was *not* my pace at this point…)
And I feel the relief and pride as I see the “800 meters” sign and pick up the pace, despite my exhausted legs, to cross the finish line with what felt like a half-smile (I’ve learned I have no gauge of my actual facial expressions) and a wave tears as I realized I had made it through — at a PR of 3:51:20.
I get to feel it.
And now, I take time to recover.